Lynn Nottage's Ruined opened Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club on Tuesday and it's unanimous—it's a hit and a gem. Nottage, the MacArthur Genius Award recipient, has unearthed a lush story about present-day Congo women, the abuse they endure, and the peace they seek. Ruined follows Mama Nadi [performed vibrantly by Saidah Arrika Ekulona] who runs a canteen/brothel in the rainforest of war-torn Congo. A place where you leave your gun at the door and have a little fun. Mama Nadi's place is frequented by miners, rebel soldiers and the government's army. But more urgently, Mama Nadi provides a haven for "ruined" women—a sexually-mutilated university student [played with alluring grace by Condola Rashad, daughter of Phylicia Rashad], a gang-raped and deserted farm girl [brought to poetic vigor by Quincy Tyler Bernstine], and the former first-daughter of a chief whose village was decimated during a rebel raid [captured wonderfully by the visceral Cherise Booth].
In Mama Nadi's place these "ruined" women exchange their bodies for a place to sleep, eat, and to put the pieces of their lives back together. However, solace is difficult. At any moment rebel soldiers could demand a bit more than a dance and a kiss, or a military leader [played with fierce bravado by Kevin Mambo] could question Mama Nadi's allegiance and attempt to turn her neutral canteen and its inhabitants into another casualty of war.
Inspired by interviews, Ruined is unsettling, but it never lectures, and it's always engaging. Nottage's play, beautifully directed by Kate Whoriskey, manages to put a microscope on a war-ravaged Africa, but more importantly, on the forgotten women who are often victims to the brutality of war. If you're in New York City, check out Ruined. If you're not, then get here. It's a production not to be missed.
Keith Josef Adkins is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and social commentator.